Tuesdays with Wilcockson: Doping on my mind, Part I


There’s been talk that an amnesty for past doping offenders is the path to a new era in clean cycling. But it’s not that easy to disperse years of pollution from a sport that is, more than ever, haunted by ghosts of doping past. An amnesty may be one step toward the goal of putting the dirty decades behind us, but it’s going to be far more difficult to purge professional cycling of its systemic sins.

We hope that the latest round of riders coming out or being outed is the start of a final phase in the cleansing process; but for it to be a truly effective process it has to be extended to the other tainted players, including team owners, directeurs sportifs, soigneurs, coaches, team doctors, rider agents, event promoters, the sport’s administrators, race officials and, yes, journalists.

When I first became immersed in the European racing scene almost 50 years ago, there were no rules against using drugs in cycling (or any other sport). I raced for an amateur team in France and was aware that some teammates popped amphetamines to help them win lap primes in circuit races. I was offered the same drugs but knew that no amount of performance-enhancement would turn me into a Tour de France rider. I also knew that ex-pros with a dicey reputation worked as a mini-mafia in the same amateur races I competed in, and that top British riders I trained with were reluctant to sign for continental pro teams because of those teams’ doping cultures.

The cycling authorities didn’t legislate against performance-enhancing drugs until 1965. The very first tests were carried out at the amateurs-only Tour of Britain Milk Race, and the country was shocked when it was announced before the final stage that race leader Luis Santamarina of Spain and two others had tested positive for amphetamines and were being thrown out of the race. That shock was somewhat tempered when Britain’s Les West won the last stage by a couple of minutes and took the overall title. The fight against doping had begun….

The British public was even more shocked two years later when their former Sportsman of the Year, Tom Simpson, died at the Tour de France on the climb of Mont Ventoux. The coroner said that the amphetamine pills discovered in his racing jersey pockets were only part of the reason he died from heat exhaustion. Simpson was my cycling hero. I met him and saw him race many times, including at the foot of the Ventoux on that tragic day at the 1967 Tour. It was hard to accept that he’d doped and died.

Simpson’s death forced the Tour organizers to introduce daily drug tests, and the 1968 edition was dubbed the “Good Health Tour” by J.B. Wadley, my editor at International Cycle Sport, the magazine where I began my first full-time journalism job. Everyone was hoping that the new testing program would end doping practices, but all it did was make the riders and their teams more secretive as they found ways to elude positive tests. That was confirmed a decade later when Tour leader Michel Pollentier was disqualified from the 1978 race at L’Alpe d’Huez. The anti-doping inspector discovered under Pollentier’s shorts a rubber bulb containing clean urine, with which he’d intended to fill the test tubes at the post-stage medical control.

I was one of a half-dozen journalists who visited with Pollentier the next morning on the balcony of his hotel room. We learned that his actions weren’t much different from what many (most?) riders had been doing for years to avoid testing positive. That candid conversation on doping with the disgraced yellow jersey was the basis of a 2,000-word news story I wrote that week in 1978 for The Sunday Times of London, one of the first mainstream articles to look at the underbelly of pro cycling.

Pollentier’s transgression led to more stringent anti-doping rules, but another 10 years on, at the 1988 Tour, another race leader, Pedro Delgado, tested positive for a steroid-masking agent. He wasn’t sanctioned because the incriminating product (already banned by the International Olympic Committee) had yet to be added to the UCI’s list of proscribed drugs. We again wrote our stories about the hidden depth of cycling’s drugs problems—but when no one would talk to the press about what was actually going on inside the peloton, it was impossible to give details or to know the full extent of doping in cycling.

Yellow jersey Delgado’s escape from disqualification was the highest-profile “doping” incident in the ’80s, when the punishment for testing positive at the Tour was a cash fine plus a 10-minute time penalty. As a result, not much was made of the slap-on-the-wrists doping violations of top Dutch pros Steven Rooks, Gert-Jan Theunisse, Johan Van der Velde and Joop Zoetemelk. It was only years later that they and other Tour riders admitted to their abuse of amphetamines, steroids or testosterone.

For the few English-speaking cycling journalists who traveled to Europe in the ’80s, those were heady times. We wrote about the break-through successes of Sean Kelly, Steve Bauer and Phil Anderson in the classics, Greg LeMond’s and Stephen Roche’s victories at the worlds and Tour, and Roche’s and Andy Hampsten’s wins at the Giro d’Italia. Some skeptics said they couldn’t have achieved those successes without doping, but we never saw anything suspicious in that pre-team-bus era, even though we’d chat with the riders in the showers at Paris-Roubaix, interview them during massage sessions at the Tour, and do extensive one-on-ones at their homes.

The amazing performances of Kelly and Roche in that period made them Ireland’s biggest sporting stars, a fact that encouraged Irish sportswriter David Walsh to move to Paris with his young family to cover their stories. We became friends and followed many Tours together over the following decade or so. Walsh also made friends with journeyman Irish pro Paul Kimmage, who was then racing for a French team and shared some of the doping stories with Walsh that became the basis of Kimmage’s 1990 book, “Rough Ride.”

After that whistle-blowing book was published, Kimmage became a pariah in the European peloton, which remained highly secretive about its use of drugs. But it was clear that athletes and sports doctors had moved on from the haphazard use of amphetamines and other stimulants. I wrote an editorial in VeloNews in 1989 titled “EPO: The scourge of the 1990s?” that pointed out the dangers of the new blood-boosting hormone, which had just been approved for use with cancer patients by the Food and Drug Administration.

The speculation, unfortunately, became a fact. An early, but unconfirmed, indication of EPO use came at the 1991 Tour when, one by one, the high-profile PDM team fell sick and dropped out. The last man standing was Kelly, who a few of us, including Aussie colleague Rupert Guinness, chatted with the morning before stage 11 when he and the rest of the team flew home. Kelly said that they’d all been sick, as if they had food poisoning, though it was later confirmed it was due to injections of a badly stored nutritional supplement, Intralipid, used for recovery … though doping was still suspected.

The wheels started to come off the EPO wagon in 1998, when Belgian soigneur Willy Voet was caught with a station wagon packed with EPO, human growth hormone, artificial testosterone and amphetamines that was destined for the world No 1-ranked Festina team at the Tour. The race took a back seat as revelation after revelation emerged from the Festina camp, and when the French police intervened to arrest team officials, race director Jean-Marie Leblanc held his infamous late-night press conference in Brive to exclude the whole Festina team from the Tour.

I sat up all night to write another doping story for The Sunday Times, this one based around Festina’s Aussie team member Neil Stephens, after he spoke with companion Rupert Guinness about his criminal-like treatment at an overnight questioning session in a French jail. The subsequent riders’ strike, further police raids and a second strike, followed by mass team withdrawals almost ended the Tour—and drowned out a dramatic comeback by eventual winner Marco Pantani to beat defending champion Jan Ullrich.

The Festina Affair began a new wave on the battle against doping, a story that I’ll continue next Tuesday.


Follow John on Twitter: @johnwilcockson 

Image: John Pierce, Photosport International

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  1. George Straz

    Great job as usual John. I’ve read just about all there is/has been to read on this subject. Most recently Miller’s and Hamilton’s books. At this point I find it incredible that the offenders, riders as well as the UCI phonies, don’t just fess up and get this crap in the rear view mirror. If his ego would allow, Lance would be a great person to start/keep the ball rolling. To me he now resembles more Richard Nixon than the athlete I used to admire. I doubt that the vast majority of us wouldn’t forgive and move on, just as we have with David and Tyler. Enough already!
    Just one I cyclist’s opinion.

  2. Clay Dudley

    The entire professional cycling landscape needs upgrading to the extent that doping costs somebody real $$$. After all, it IS about the money.
    If you had cycling team franchises (like NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL) then the owner would have an investment. Hence sanctions against the TEAM could ultimately lead to forfeiture of the franchise and a huge monetary loss to the owner.
    Putting the burden on the owner to have clean riders would be a huge start. The owners would hold team directors et al responsible for riders as part of their job. Riders would fear doping as it would mean they couldn’t get a job when they were caught.
    No more “do what you want, just don’t tell us”.
    Also with franchises, getting to play the game wouldn’t be based on performance points.
    Obviously you would have stong teams and weak teams but all leagues have survived on this basis.
    Digging into the past, however, is an exercise in futility. There is no point in “proving” what most of us think we know.
    Put an asterisk by whatever years you want and move on!
    Spend that time and energy getting things improved starting now. For some reason, I do think progress has already been made.

  3. Debbie in Alamo Heights

    Am I the only person who remembers articles in Winning or Velo News in which a rider would explain that one of the reasons he chose to sign with Team X was the team’s advanced medical programme? Didn’t anyone else think that might have meant something more than a good health insurance plan?

  4. Troutdreams

    That was an especially interesting article since many of those stories are new to me.
    Looking forward to next week.

    John Dudley raised an interesting approach to punishment- a team penalty. It works to some degree in other pro leagues (punishment) but I wonder how revenue sharing factors in? Meaning, an NFL team owner has much more to lose, with teams valued for hundreds of millions. That’s due in part to revenue sharing.

  5. ervgopwr

    As other have pointed out, just like the past crop of doped riders can either remove themselves from the sport or vow to live a clean start, so to the journalists of that era need to do the same.

    How can you describe all the doping going on up to the Festina affair, then end the story with “a dramatic comeback by eventual winner Marco Pantani to beat defending champion Jan Ullrich”?

    Both of those dudes were certainly on the juice too! They just hadn’t been caught.

    I’m all for the writing of the dramatic stories of cycling, but come on! Don’t just switch back to the naive narrative of your hero’s; which this will eventually end with the Armstrong case. Call them out, and call for a clean sport. This is the power of your position.

  6. Ian Walton


    Nice piece. I have been an ever optimist. Reality is perhaps biting me a little and I am left wondering if anyone is clean.

    Your comment about not noticing anything suspicious with the English speaking Pro’s – implying they were therefore clean – is interesting. I am not saying they weren’t, I am just starting to believe that if the wool can be pulled over our eyes by so many for so long then who is to say everyone wasn’t – and isn’t still.

    I was speaking to a journalist last week who indeed does believe that the whole peloton and in fact most of professional sport is on something. While I do not want to believe this and will not sign up to that belief without proof, the times are a worrying one and a time when journalists need to do a sporting Watargate perhaps. But we need proof not rumour and scandal.

    Weed em out, the whole lot of em. Or we just accept it and move on.

    All that said. None of the revelations, rumours, positives affect my admiration for the job cyclists do and the love for the sport. Nor does it affect my support for a particular cyclist in any case cropping up. A needle doesn’t make them a great. Commitment does regardless of the added needle. It’s a tough old game…


  7. Andy Derby

    Picking up on Clay Dudley’s last point “I think progress has been made”, I agree in the sense that some of the biggest teams in the sport (Sky, Garmin, Orica) are sending out a zero tolerance message to there riders which is great and should force other teams to follow suit.
    But why are the UCI and some of the other teams dragging there heels and not making positive strides forward, the whole Contador incident still gives the impression to outsiders that our sport will tolerate drugs if your a big name!
    The way Barne and Saxo Bank stuck by there man despite him being found guilty and handed the shortest ban possible to me sets a very poor example.
    I loved the out and out racing of the Vuelta this year but when Contador took the lead I didn’t watch the remaining stages, and I’m not the only one.
    I’m not a serious racing cyclist just a guy who likes to ride a bike and enjoys watching the pros but why when I admit that to people do I have to constantly justify that not all cyclist are on drugs….

  8. ervgopwr

    Blake B… sorry mate, can’t wait that long; and really, I don’t see it coming, because of the reversion back to “the dramatics of doper x vs doper y”.

    Again, I’m not saying I don’t want to hear or read about speed cycling in the highest form (i.e. the PRO’s) but don’t feign ignorance about those at the top in certain era’s.

  9. Dave

    What a difference 14 years makes. I remember during the Festina Affair Neil Stephens looking straight into the TV cameras and saying something like “There’s nothing to worry about because we did nothing wrong.” The lies and arrogance were just sickening. At the time, we were supposed to feel sympathetic towards the riders during their “strike” because the French cops were questioning them late at night and treating them like criminals. Well guess what, the riders were criminals and deserved exactly what they got. The issue was not positive tests but illegal possession of pharmaceuticals–riders and team staff broke French Law and got busted, that’s what it means to be a criminal. At the time we couldn’t see the irony of Bjarne Riis acting as the rider’s spokesperson, but in hindsight this is pure hypocrisy.

    Personally, I respect journalists like Paul Kimmage who refuse to drink the Kool-Aid and are skeptical when people like Armstrong test positive and nothing happens. What I would like to hear from John is less drug bust history and narrative, and more analysis on why journalists and the public continued for so long to believe the lies they were told.

  10. Rex

    Does an amnesty not remove any element of risk from the risk-reward equation any doper must weigh up?

    I watch pro cycling like everyone else, and try to enjoy it for the spectacle, rather than dwell on whether they are on anything.

    However, being new to the sport, I thought Contador’s return raised some interesting points: it seems as though many were happy to have him back, and seemed quick to forgive/forget the past.

    I do not personally care whether pros dope, as as mentioned above, watch the races primarily for the excitement of a race. However, if cycling REALLY wanted to get clean, then the penalty for cheating should be so high as to be NOT worth the risk. I’m not sure what powers the authorities have, but a lifetime ban is the most severe thing I can think of. Since teams disband, but are made up of people, then it seems the rules can only target people (not teams). Maybe a lifetime ban for those in charge too? This would make them much more proactive in policing a clean team (and remove the plausible deniability problem). Or to take it to the next level – cycling is about sponsors, so these sponsors supply the money to the sport. They (currently) don’t care about the riders/teams, as long as they get exposure. Maybe there could be a ban on the name/primary sponsor, if a rider was found to be doping.

    Anyway, I think there must be a big enough stick to make doping not worthwhile, since it currently appears that the risks are worth the rewards.

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